To say that Oprah Winfrey is both popular and rich is a gross understatement. Oprah has made authors, including my fav, Billie Letts, for years with book of the month reading.
She has electronic devices and gadgets whose sales skyrocket after being on the show. She has Dr. Oz talk about taking better care of your body, and even that seems to work.
So, should a popular celebrity endorse a political candidate who has appeared on her show and not even invite any of his competitors to appear?
MONTECITO, Calif. -- Barack Obama was running late for work at the U.S. Capitol one day, when a beefy security guard in dark sunglasses stopped the senator's car and peered in sternly to ask for identification.
All of a sudden, though, the Senate ID wasn't necessary for the freshman Illinois lawmaker.
"Hey, you were on 'Oprah'!" the man said, stepping back to direct Obama's car through the checkpoint with a friendly wave.
"It's at that point that I realized the power of Oprah Winfrey," Obama recalled in an interview Friday about his talk-show-host friend. "Her reach extended beyond the stereotypical demographic ... And the appearance on her show amplified my profile around the country."
By that time, Obama was several months past the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that made him a political star, and his first published memoir was selling well.
But an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" had widened his path into the world of pop culture, a critical domain as he began to build his celebrity-infused political portfolio. The relationship has grown along with Obama's rise, as the two Chicago celebrities have turned a passing acquaintance from the city's social circles into a powerful friendship with national implications.
Now the billionaire media magnate hopes to help Obama in his quest to win his party's presidential nomination, involving herself actively in politics for the first time. She is kicking off the effort here with a star-studded fundraiser Saturday evening at her estate, with some of the entertainment industry's biggest names reportedly on the guest list, including Will Smith, John Travolta, Jamie Foxx and Halle Berry.
The soiree is expected to raise more than $3 million, making it the most lucrative fundraiser of Obama's political career. And it may be only the beginning of her support, with television ads featuring Winfrey and even speaking appearances possible.
It is not a simple prospect for any star, especially for one who so jealously guards her brand identity. In joining Obama's campaign, Winfrey is flouting the lessons of celebrities who have closely associated themselves with candidates, only to turn off a certain segment of their audiences and diminish their own marketability.
Some suggest that if any star is well-established enough to risk it, it is Winfrey. She is especially popular with women and African-Americans, critical demographics for Obama as he competes against front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, who enjoys solid support from both those groups.
"As a marketer, [Oprah's] power lies in being able to make her recommendations seem very friendly, like they are coming from a girlfriend," said Kathleen Rooney, who is updating a 2005 book about the influence of Winfrey's book club.
Or, as Winfrey herself said recently, "My support of him is probably worth more than any check that I could write."
So when she expressed interest in helping Obama, his staff was more than happy to start the discussions. They didn't need a recent Gallup Poll to tell them Winfrey is considered one of the most influential women in America. (She ranked second in the most recent poll to Clinton, a New York Democrat.)
Winfrey, who declined an interview request, has become good friends with both Obama and his wife, Michelle, in the last couple of years.
They knew each other before his run for the U.S. Senate that began in 2003, said Dan Shomon, a longtime Obama aide who worked for him in that race.
But the two didn't really know each other well until the fall of 2004, when Winfrey, inspired by Obama's national convention address, asked to interview the Obamas for her magazine. She visited their house and, as is evident from the laughter and warm chatter in the recording of their conversation, the three hit it off right away.
After that interview, say people who know them, Winfrey and the Obamas became social friends, with the couple even visiting her Chicago home. Later, Winfrey and the senator flew together from Chicago to view the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and displaced Gulf Coast residents.
Just months after Obama's Senate term began, a close confidant says, he told friends of a visit he and his wife paid to Winfrey's California home as part of her Legends Ball weekend honoring African-American women.
As a group that included jazz great Quincy Jones sampled snacks, it was on that May 2005 visit to Winfrey's Montecito estate that the idea of Winfrey hosting a political event apparently first came up.
Obama has said he was not actively planning a White House run at the time, but it may have been something Winfrey was contemplating for him.
"'Wouldn't this be a great place for a fundraiser?' I said jokingly," Winfrey recalled of the gathering that weekend during a recent interview on her own satellite radio channel.
The glitz that weekend will be nothing compared to this one on Winfrey's 42-acre coastal property, which features a man-made lake and a 23,000-square-foot mansion. Winfrey calls it "the Promised Land."
The sold-out gathering is the flashiest fundraiser yet in this election cycle, with about 1,500 guests expected. Stevie Wonder, an Obama favorite, is expected to perform.
One of Obama's top national fundraisers said more than one high-wattage guest cut short a European vacation to be there. "It's going to be a zoo," the California fundraiser said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Obama or Winfrey.
Because so many celebrities and wealthy donors have already given the maximum allowed by federal law, the fundraiser said many needed to raise money from smaller donors in order to get a ticket. "It's hard to find people who haven't given to him," he said.
Many Hollywood actors have already given the maximum allowed to Obama. Morgan Freeman has, as have Halle Berry, Eddie Murphy, Leonard Nimoy, Chris Rock, George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston.
Others are doubling down, giving to two or more candidates. Actor Tom Hanks, for example, has already given the maximum allowed to Obama and Clinton. Ben Stiller, meanwhile, has given to those two, as well as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
While the scene will be flashy even by Hollywood standards, the dress will be casual, reflecting the candidate's trademark open-collar look and the conditions on the ground.
The guests must behave
Calling her estate a "special, sacred, spiritual" place, Winfrey said guests will need to be on their best behavior. "To offer it ... is no small thing for me," she said. "There are going to be some serious restrictions and requirements to get in here."
She's not kidding. Visitors have been instructed to wear flat shoes and other "garden attire," because the event will take place in a meadow on the property, and most guests will not be invited inside the house.
Recording devices, potentially cell phones too, will not be allowed on the property. Government-issued photo IDs will be compared to a guest list.
Students of the Oprah phenomenon recognize Winfrey's almost obsessive protectiveness, not just of her home, but also her image and brand.
The event has inspired speculation among political types about how the celebrity involvement could affect the campaign. Some are skeptical.
Bruce Gronbeck, a University of Iowa political communications professor, said celebrity endorsements typically are not very effective, especially in early voting states where Obama's fate will likely be decided.
"Iowa caucusgoers tend to take their political decision-making pretty seriously," he said. "It will be a positive sign for many, but I don't think at all it will be a definitive mark."
Obama agrees it is hard to predict how much Winfrey's backing will help.
"It's very hard to say," he said. "I think a presidential race is unique. The job is unique. People who might buy my book because of an appearance on Oprah are obviously going to have a much more serious and sober deliberation when it comes to deciding who the next leader of the free world is."
Still, he said, he has no doubt that Winfrey's support will help him, at the very least, to reach voters who might not otherwise hear what he has to say.
"Ultimately, they've got to be persuaded by me that I'm the right person for the job," Obama said, but "Oprah is somebody who has enormous reach, and that means that I may get a hearing in certain quarters."
Full disclosure: I like Barack Obama. The words he says seem to be designed to bring people with opposing ideas together, not drive them apart. I am not declaring my support for the good Senator from Illinois. Mr Obama is a zillion times better than any of the nine Republican pretenders, but I want to see his plan for health care for the 45 or so million citizens who do not currently have health care insurance.
Update Thought: Oprah has gotten people to read. Can Oprah get them to vote ?